When you're sitting in a theatre, and a play is going on, a play that your neighbors probably paid good money to see, you don't take pictures. You just don't.
I remember going to see a musical adaptation of the Euripides play Cyclops and the woman right next to me whipped out a large camera and started taking pictures of the action. I motioned to her to put the camera away, but she didn't respond. "You're not supposed to take pictures during the show," I whispered. "Actors Equity has rules against it."
The mention of Actors Equity seemed to register with her. After the show, she told me that the guy playing the cyclops was a former roommate of her son, and she was very excited to see him. She said she had no idea that the union had rules about that sort of thing, and she apologized for using the camera. I told her not to worry about it. She knew now for the future.
Of course, it isn't just Actors Equity that has issues with people taking photographs of plays. The set of Charles Mee's First Love at the Cherry Lane Theatre was quite extraordinary, and a friend of mine decided to take a snapshot of it before the play began. An usher immediately rushed over and asked her to delete the photo. "Intellectual property," she explained. Set designers don't want their work exploited either. It's simple. When you're at a play, you don't take pictures.
Except when you do. When I saw History Alive present the play Cry Innocent at the ATHE conference in Boston, the performers announced that photographs were permitted. However, they explicitly said that we were not allowed to record any video. Well, during the show an audience member started recording video and had to be told by a neighbor to stop it. As with my experience during Cyclops, a conscientious audience member was able to stop a banned practice.
Unfortunately, audiences these days don't seem capable of policing themselves without an announcement from the theatre. Last week, I waited in line for hours to see The Public Theatre's production of The Gospel at Colonus in Central Park. I then spent most of the first act being distracted by a sea of digital screens belonging to people trying to record video of the performance. At first, the ushers didn't seem to care in the slightest. Eventually, the screens started going out, including (at long last) the one being used by the woman with pink hair right in my line of sight. (You know who you are!) Perhaps ushers did belatedly give some warnings.
Before the play began, though, there were no pre-show announcements. I imagine that was to preserve the artistic integrity of the production, which included actors mingling with the audience, welcoming us all to the town of Colonus. We all know not to behave like animals (right?) and a pre-show announcement might have interfered with the mood the production was trying to create. I agree that pre-show announcements shouldn't be necessary before a play, but the fact is, tons of people (and one very annoying person several rows in front of me) apparently can't be relied upon to just do the right thing.
Last night I saw a great show at the Producers Club called Rum & Pirates. The performers announced at the beginning of the show that audience members were welcome to take photos, but could not take video. In spite of the fact that each member of the audience was served three rum drinks over the course of the show (or perhaps because of it), everyone behaved themselves. There were a few screens visible occasionally as folks took single pictures, but for the most part people weren't jerks, and no one tried to take video for minutes and minutes, annoying fellow patrons.
There's a big difference between a boozy audience at the Producers Club and the cultured spectators going to the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, but if anything you would expect the audience at the Delacorte to be more respectful, and that wasn't the case. The fact is, audience expectations are changing, and if you want audience members to behave themselves, perhaps they simply have to be told what they can and cannot do.
Of course, it wouldn't hurt if the ushers at the Delacorte were a little more quick on their feet, either.